HERC lot new public safety site

In discussions at its work session on Monday, the Homer City Council leaned toward selecting the Homer Education and Recreation Complex building lot as the site for a proposed $15.3 million public safety building that would include a fire hall, police station and jail.

If the public safety building goes in on that lot, the existing buildings would be demolished, about a $450,000 cost, including $250,000 for asbestos and lead paint removal. The HERC building will be closed and put on cold status — heated at 50 degrees to keep pipes from freezing — at the end of the month. The council did discuss leaving the gym open while cold.

The discussion came up as the council considered and approved its 2014 capital improvement project priority list. It listed the public safety building as number two on its list, and seeks $1.5 million in 2014 from the Alaska Legislature for site design. To show its commitment to the project, the council on Monday approved on first reading an ordinance appropriating $300,000 from public safety depreciation funds for engineering and design work. Selecting a site would move that design work forward. The council will vote on the appropriation ordinance at its Sept. 23 meeting.

In approving the CIP list, the council amended the description of the public safety building project to say it identified the HERC building lot as its preferred site. 

Other projects approved on its CIP list were 1) water storage/distribution improvements, 3) harbor sheet pile loading dock, 4) fire department equipment upgrades and 5) east-to-west transportation corridor.

At the work session, economic development director Katie Koester briefed the council on a staff committee’s analysis of potential sites. The group looked at eight lots in the downtown area. It eliminated three private lots, Cook Inlet Region Inc. lots by Petro Express, and two lots owned by the Waddell family. The HERC site, two Town Center sites and a Pioneer Avenue site behind Alice’s Champagne Palace made the first cut. The committee ranked the HERC site and the Town Center Main Street site the top lots.

Making the HERC site attractive was its proximity to Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway and existing utilities. The Town Center site would need utilities, a road and driveway, as would the Pioneer Avenue site.

“As a pro, it’s developed land,” Koester said of the HERC site. “There’s not going to be a lot of permitting issues.”

One concern Homer Volunteer Fire Department Chief Bob Painter has with the HERC site was its distance from Homer Spit buildings. The further away a building is from a fire hall, the lower its insurance rating. Moving the fire hall from East Pioneer Avenue and Heath Street to West Pioneer Avenue and the Sterling Highway might affect some Spit buildings. The Insurance Services Offices, or ISO. A Homer building gets a lower rating if it’s 5 miles from the fire hall and 1,000 feet from a fire hydrant, Painter said. The Spit at the Heritage RV Park is 5 miles from the HERC site. Not all insurance agencies use ISO ratings, he said.

Many council members spoke in support of the HERC site.

“The HERC by far seems the cheapest site. The cost of demolition would largely outweigh other factors,” said council member Beau Burgess.

Council member Francie Roberts also agreed.

“I like the HERC site best,” she said.

City Manager Walt Wrede said he had discussed the asbestos and lead abatement issue with Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre. The borough might be able to help with the hazardous materials removal cost, Wrede said Navarre told him. The borough deeded the lot and building to the city after it closed the old Homer Intermediate School.

Community Recreation supporters had advocated renovating the HERC, but an architect’s study showed the cost of renovating was about as much as constructing a new building. Burgess said that whatever direction the council takes regarding a recreation center, “we have to have a divorce from the HERC building,” he said, quoting a phrase used by council member Barbara Howard. 

Not asking for a HERC or a recreation center in its CIP drew criticism from one woman speaking at the committee of the whole meeting.

“It makes me realize the city leadership continues to undervalue the role recreation plays in our community,” she said.

Corbin Arno, a candidate for city council, also questioned the HERC lot for a Public Safety building site.

“Do we really want a police and fire station right next to our school?” he asked, referring to the nearby Homer Middle School. “We’re kind of rushing the building site, jamming this through.”

Lewis asked if the HERC gym could be saved and the rest of the building demolished. One idea Mayor Beth Wythe suggested was using the current fire hall for a rec center after the new fire hall is built. The fire hall has meeting rooms, showers, a kitchen and large garage bays. 

“I like the idea of possibly using one of the old buildings, the fire hall, and turning it into a rec center,” Roberts said.

Burgess also suggested a broader vision: creating a borough recreational service area for the lower peninsula that would bring in borough taxpayer support, many of whom use Community Recreation programs. 

“I realize there is a lot of support in the community to have a community recreation space,” he said. “What we need to have is a viable discussion for a longer-term funding source for community recreation.”

Kate Crowley, who worked with other citizens on the HERC renovation idea, said a new citizen group has been formed, Recreate Rec. It did not have a clear vision for Community Recreation and is now working on to get a clear vision, she said.

“We don’t necessarily link ourselves to that HERC building anymore,” Crowley said. “The discussion has been about how else can we house all the user groups that we see and how we can foster the goal of recreation in the city of Homer and beyond.

One group advocated a shorter-term fix for the HERC: keeping it open so they can play pickleball. The city didn’t budget money to keep the HERC available for programs. Amy Rattenberry asked the city to keep the HERC open until it’s demolished. 

Lewis asked if the building could be available if it was on cold status, that is, kept heated to 50 degrees. Wrede said if the council was OK with opening the gym if heated at 50 degrees, that could happen.

The city council next meets at 6 p.m. Sept. 23 in the Cowles Council Chambers, City Hall.

Michael Armstrong can be reached at michael.armstrong@homernews.com.